Officials at a federal program that runs hospitals and clinics serving Native Americans this summer prohibited employees from using those facilities to sign up new voters, saying that even nonpartisan voter registration was prohibited on federal property.
Staff members at several Indian Health Service hospitals and clinics in New Mexico, a presidential battleground state where about one-tenth of the population is Native American, were trying to register employees, patients and family members who use the facilities.
In a July e-mail, Ronald C. Wood, executive officer of the program's regional Navajo office, told his hospital and clinic directors that "we are in a very sensitive political season" and outlined a policy that he said came from Indian Health Service headquarters.
"There have been recent questions about whether we can do nonpartisan voter registration drives in our IHS facilities during non-duty hours," Wood wrote. "The guidance from HQs staff is that we should not allow voter registration in our facilities or on federal property."
Several of those involved in the registration effort questioned what they saw as a double standard, given that the federal government encourages registration on military bases, where voters traditionally have favored Republicans.
Democrats and civil rights groups yesterday said they had been unaware of the directive and were concerned that the motive was partisan. Native Americans have become an important constituency for Democrats.
"Why should it be permissible to conduct voter registration on one type of federal facility -- military bases -- but not on another?" asked Elliott Mincberg, legal director at the People for the American Way Foundation.
The Indian Health Service, a program under the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement yesterday that outside groups are not prohibited to register voters at IHS facilities. As to Wood's instruction to the program's employees, the statement said: "No IHS employee will be registering voters as part of his or her official duties."
Wood did not return phone calls, but in his e-mail he referred employees' questions to Jeanelle Raybon, director of the IHS office on integrity and ethics. Raybon declined to clarify the agency's statement or answer questions about whether Wood's instructions reflected IHS policy.
She would say only that employees are expected to follow the Hatch Act. That law restricts partisan activity by federal workers but does not speak to nonpartisan registration drives. A 1992 memo by the General Services Administration, which controls federal buildings, authorizes voter registration on federal property.
Defense Department spokesman Glenn Flood said that service members must comply with the Hatch Act but that the military encourages them to take part in registering others "on or off-base," so long as the activity is nonpartisan and does not interfere with official duties.
Joseph E. Sandler, general counsel for the Democratic National Committee, said that the Hatch Act does not apply in this case and that he plans to investigate the matter.
Also yesterday, the DNC outlined an aggressive legal strategy it says is needed to protect minority voters from intimidation at the polls.
It unveiled an ad to air on African American radio stations implying that President Bush cares only about getting white voters to the polls. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the first black Republican elected statewide in Maryland, rebutted that charge. Both the GOP and the administration want to get out the vote, he said, "black or white."
Several Bush administration agencies have been criticized after taking steps to block or question other registration efforts.
The Homeland Security Department sought to block a nonpartisan group from registering new citizens outside a Miami naturalization ceremony in August.
The Justice Department has launched inquiries into new registrations submitted by Democratic-leaning groups in several key states. Democrats say the probes are politically motivated.